On Feb. 6, 2021, I received a check in the mail. Like most people, I like getting checks. But this one, a settlement payment from the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), was different. There was no joy attached to its delivery — only dark memories of the violent, degrading strip search that I and hundreds of other women endured as part of a cadet training exercise at Logan Correctional Center.
The search took place on the morning of Oct. 31, 2013. To this day, I believe the choice of Halloween was intentional. Fear gripped my heart as male and female guards, cadets and staff screamed at us to get up and get dressed and threatened us with solitary confinement if we said a word. The cadets were being trained on how to shake down prisoners — and how to treat us in general.
As we stood in front of our cells, female cadets made us strip naked; male officers were present. We stood there as various other men who weren’t on staff walked up and down the hallways watching us.
Some of us had to remove sanitary products right there in front of them. The female cadets patted us down, lifted our breasts and forced us to spread our buttocks so that they could look inside us with flashlights. Then, as we squatted and coughed, they handcuffed us. They led us to the dayroom to sit for hours until their mock shakedown was complete. Some officers joked around while we sat there. Eventually, we were allowed to put our clothes back on, but we were still in view of male officers and cadets.
Just retelling this story brings back the trauma of an event I thought I could somehow forget. But how could I forget when the same thing had happened two years prior?
That abusive cadet training exercise took place on March 31, 2011 at Lincoln Correctional Center. As with my second experience, male and female staff, officers and cadets woke us up early in the morning, screaming: “Get up, get dressed and don’t say a word! If you do, you’re going to seg!”
The cadets painfully handcuffed about 200 of us, with officers stepping in if they got it wrong. Then they marched us to the gym, lined us up shoulder to shoulder and told us to face the wall under the threat of solitary confinement. The gym bathroom, with its collection of mirrors along the wall, was wide open. I could see a male officer in the mirror laughing.
One of the reasons I remember this search in such detail is because I was on my cycle and had to stand there naked and bleeding because no one brought sanitary products. We were not allowed to use the bathroom, which resulted in many accidents. Some women had seizures; others passed out from what seemed to be anxiety attacks. Officers made derogatory remarks about our bodies and said that we stunk. We were handcuffed behind our backs for about six hours. Nearly 10 years later, my wrists and hands still swell as a result.
No amount of money could undo the trauma of these experiences, but a group of us decided to file a lawsuit for the Halloween 2013 strip search. I was still incarcerated at the time.
In July 2020, when I had been out of prison for about 18 months, IDOC offered us money and asked us to sign an agreement absolving them of any wrongdoing. I asked my attorney what would happen if I didn’t sign the papers, and he told me that the judge might throw the lawsuit out. The court, he said, did not place high priority on prisoners being strip searched.
I was still not going to sign. But my attorney, who, bear in mind, was not an advocate in the movement for a just criminal legal system, convinced me. “You know there are women inside that need that money,” he said. I knew he was right. I also knew it was a manipulative statement. But my heart was with my sisters inside. I knew firsthand that this money could mean the difference between deprivation and a pair of shoes, a pack of T-shirts or the chance to shop for food. With that in mind, I signed the settlement agreement.
The shame of those days stayed with me for years. But that shame should not be mine. It should be on the officers who abused us. These are only two accounts of the harm inflicted on me and other women during my time inside. There is not enough space in one piece to detail the atrocities.
For the Halloween strip search, IDOC mailed me a check for $325. Although the agency continues to assert that their staff did nothing wrong, this check that I may never cash is proof that they are guilty. That this happened to me and hundreds of other women.
Beyond my individual experience, that measly check is even greater proof that the system does not care about Black women. The check says to me that in the eyes of IDOC, my pain — and that of my sisters — is only worth $325. The cost of dignity.
Willette Benford is a decarceration organizer with Live Free Illinois. She is a mother, advocate and minister who works with numerous local and national groups, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Reentry Project, Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s Visible Voices & Leadership Council, Women’s Justice Institute and Mothers United Against Violence and Incarceration.
The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.